Some years my students love projects. They enjoy working together to solve problems. They have the ability to think critically and create innovative final products. Then, occasionally I will encounter a group that both don’t like projects and can’t handle them effectively for various reasons. So, with those groups, I end up crafting a lot of independent work or solo projects. While they are not able to gain the same collaborative skills that the project-loving groups do, the same content and objectives are covered. It’s just a bit different. Being a big fan of projects myself, I love watching the students figure out solutions, solve problems, work together, fail, revise, and think critically about the world around them.
Today in STEM class, I introduced the final math project for our unit on Brook Trout and Ecosystems. The students, working in small groups, have to create a geometrically correct river in which Brook Trout will thrive. They will create a proposal and blueprint for their river design based on what they previously learned about the Brook Trout’s habitat. They will then build a scale model of their design. They will also need to test their model using various geometric shapes and angles to test for water flow and speed. To help give the project a little more clout and to make it more tangible for the students, I told them a bit of a white lie about it in class today. I told them that NH Fish and Game is sponsoring a statewide competition for students in grades K-8 to design the perfect river for Brook Trout to thrive and generate sport fishing. I said there will be prizes awarded for the winning design, which will then be built by the NH Fish and Game organization in the coming years. This is not true, but it got the students really excited about the project. While they weren’t focused on the competition aspect while working in class today, they were committed to working diligently. So, I figure, a little white lie won’t hurt, right? I’ll come clean eventually and will award prizes for the winning design, that I choose. Having the students think that this project is part of something bigger than the classroom helped to motivate them to think creatively and innovatively. Some of their discussions were quite amazing. They were discussing how to make a river flow upstream, how to install underground chillers, and how to make the river system eco-friendly. It was awesome to listen to their teamwork and conversations. They were connecting previous knowledge and learning to this project. It’s what a STEM unit is all about.
If I hadn’t made the project seem as relevant to the students, would today’s outcome have been different? To create a meaningful learning experience for my students, bending the truth a bit doesn’t seem terribly horrible. Plus, maybe I’ll have the students help me draft a proposal to send to NH Fish and Game, detailing our idea and project depending on how things play out. Maybe something like that could come to fruition. The more the boys worked on the project today in class, the more I realized what a brilliant idea this would actually be. As the students apply the geometry skills they learned earlier in the unit to complete this project, relevant learning is happening. The students are thinking critically about our nearby ecosystems to engineer a natural process in a new and innovative way. Not only are the students learning how to work together, but they are also learning how to solve real-world problems in unique ways. Isn’t that what Project Based Learning and the STEM approach are all about? I think so. These boys are going to be ready to take on the world next year due to all of the skills and experiences they have gained in the sixth grade.